Poverty has always been the shadow of prosperity, but now we have an advancing global depression creating more of it -- pulling in more and more of the middle class, the folks who aren't used to it. This is where the headlines are.
Oh, the drama. A suicide epidemic manifests in struggling Europe:
"On March 28, Giuseppe Campaniello set himself on fire in front of the Equitalia office" -- Italy's tax-collection agency -- "in Bologna after he received a final notice about the doubling of a fine he could not pay," Newsweek reported last week. "He died in a burn ward nine days later."
Economics is a cruel game. The stakes are life and death. The driving theory is simplistic, mechanical, with a cauldron of emotion and judgment bubbling just below the surface.
"Today many people want much bigger government and still more handouts; these freeloaders want others to pay for their sloth," writes Richard M. Salsman in Forbes. "'Soak the rich,' they cry, for the rich allegedly have no right to the wealth they've actually earned, but the freeloaders supposedly have a 'right' to the wealth they didn't earn."
The world I live in vibrates with desperation. Here in the U.S., our suicides may be quieter, but we also get another kind of story, what you might call the slasher story, as human service budgets get pared to the bone.
For instance, the mother of Xavius Scullark-Johnson, who died two years ago at age 27, has just filed a lawsuit against several employees of the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Her son was three months away from finishing his probation-violation sentence at the Rush City correctional facility when he suffered a seizure in his cell -- but was left untreated, lying on the floor in his own urine. When a doctor was finally notified of his condition the next morning, he told a corrections officer to call 911, but the nurse on duty turned the ambulance away when it showed up. Scullark-Johnson died a few hours later.
Turns out that ambulance runs at the state's prisons are carefully monitored in order to cut costs. A Minnesota Department of Corrections spokesperson explained, in an email to The Huffington Post, that "the department must balance the needs of our offender population with the limited resources appropriated by the legislature."
Money rules, OK? Get used to it. Yet once again I find myself caught in a downward spiral of incredulity ... that this is our world, that we serve such a preposterous god. When money is no longer casually omnipresent, the question hovers: What is it? How does it work? How is it that money has decreed an abundance of plastic trash in the world, an abundance of handguns and drone technology and junk food, but a shortage of ambulances for dying prisoners, a shortage of mercy?
Is money the necessary precondition of all human organization, the final arbiter of possibility? We certainly live our lives as though it is. We play politics as though it is. And we govern ourselves as though it is.
But what is it?
"Money," writes Charles Eisenstein in his book Sacred Economics
... is a system of social agreements, meanings, and symbols that develops over time. It is, in a word, a story, existing in social reality along with such things as laws, nations, institutions, calendar and clock time, religion, and science. Stories bear tremendous creative power. Through them we coordinate human activity, focus attention and intention, define roles, and identify what is important and even what is real. Stories give meaning and purpose to life and therefore motivate action. Money is a key element of the story of Separation that defines our civilization.
Money is the agent of separation and scarcity. At the dawn of the historical era, we took a leap out of the circle of life: "And God blessed them. And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'"
And so we have done, and now a huge number of us -- perhaps a majority -- believe, in ways both fiercely rational and utterly crazy, that this era is over.
And as I write this, as I scream "change the story," I realize I am bending economic theory to the breaking point, but I don't think there's any alternative. If nothing else, money is the root of all cynicism, and any proposed change in our way of doing business with one another and Planet Earth that smacks of idealism will be hounded to death by the debt collectors unless money itself loses its power to mesmerize and galvanize.
And when that happens we can begin to remember an earlier humanity, which functioned with a gift economy: Every exchange created connection. We valued and encouraged generosity because more for me meant more for you. How do we begin saying no to a world of debtors' hell? Can we begin with a suicide note?
"Dear love," read the farewell letter from the Bologna man who set fire to himself in front of the tax-collection agency, "I am here crying. This morning I left a bit early, I wanted to wake you, say goodbye, but you were sleeping so well I was afraid to wake you. Today is an ugly day. I ask forgiveness from everyone. A kiss to you all. I love you, Giuseppe."
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
© 2012 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
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